A lock of hair from an Ethiopian prince will be returned to representatives of the country by the descendants of a British officer as part of an ongoing repatriation campaign.
The hair was taken from Prince Alemayehu, a defeated Abyssinian royal who became acquainted with Queen Victoria after being brought to Britain, and this token was held by his enemy and later guardian, Captain Tristram Speedy.
The lock of hair will be returned to Ethiopia along with a sacred tablet or Tabot, considered extremely sacred to the nation’s Orthodox Church.
Campaigners including George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, have repeatedly called on the British Museum and Westminster Abbey to return the religiously significant Ethiopian tablets in their possession.
Tahir Shah, founder of the Scheherazade Foundation which has pushed for repatriation and is facilitating the handover of the artefacts, said: “It is impossible to overstate what these objects mean in Ethiopia.
“This is a huge moment for Ethiopia. The last time a Tabot was returned, a public holiday was declared.
“Returning the lock of Prince Alemayehu’s hair is all about respect, respect to a proud people. The imperial line may no longer be in power, but it is widely revered.”
The objects will be handed over to Ethiopian representatives at a ceremony at the Athenaeum Club in London on September 21, marking another chapter of their complex history.
In 1868, British forces seized the fortress of Magdala during a punitive, hostage-rescue expedition against Abyssinia, and plundered its treasures, including sacred Tabots now held in the British Museum and Westminster Abbey.
Prior to defeat, the Abyssinian Emperor Tewodros II took his own life, leaving his son Prince Alemayehu at the mercy of the British.
The seven-year-old was given to the care of Speedy, an adventurer who had once visited the Abyssinian court and been given the nickname Basha Felika (Sir Speedy) by the Emperor, and who as an officer in the Army used his knowledge to guide British forces to Magdala.
Speedy brought Alemayehu to his home on the Isle of Wight and the young prince was introduced to Queen Victoria who took a great personal interest in his future.
It was decided that Alemayehu should be educated in Britain, and he attended Rugby School and sought to be trained as an officer at Sandhurst. Following his death from pleurisy aged 18 in 1879, Queen Victoria arranged for him to be buried beneath St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
His body has been subject to repeated requests for repatriation which have been refused by Buckingham Palace on the grounds that exhuming his remains would disturb other burial sites.
Descendents of Speedy living in New Zealand have come forward to offer a lock of the prince’s hair to Ethiopia, an act which Mr Shah said “is a symbol of healing old wounds and forging new relations”.
The Tabot is being returned by an expert who spotted the item for sale online, with a price tag only in the hundreds of pounds due to the highly significant artefact appearing unremarkable.
The objects modelled on the Mosaic Tablets of Law are considered holy in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, however, and churches are built around their particular Tabots, which are considered too sacred to be looked at by the eyes of lay people.
The 11 Tabots in the British Museum and the one in Westminster are kept out of sight in line with this religious prohibition, leading campaigners for their repatriation to brand their continued storage in these institutions “pointless”.
The British Museum is bound by law to retain its collection, and Westminster, as a Royal Peculiar, is guided by Royal discretion.
Mr Shah has said that the voluntary return of the lock of hair and the Tabot will put pressure on these institutions to return their sacred tablets, and on the V&A Museum to return objects in its collection which were taken from Magdala.
He said: “They could potentially realise an astonishing level of diplomatic and cultural goodwill by returning these altar tablets without delay.”